The Multinational Monitor

Jan./Feb. 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 1 & 2


W i n n i n g   C a m p a i g n s

Haiti's Thirst for Justice

By Charles Arthur

On plantations in the north of Haiti, workers harvest green, bitter-tasting oranges, quarter them and then separate the peel from the pulp by hand. The peels are dried in the sun and then shipped to France where they are macerated, distilled and blended with other ingredients to produce the world-famous liqueurs Grand Marnier and Cointreau manufactured by the French companies, Société des Produits Marnier-Lapostolle and Rémy Cointreau.

Rates of pay and conditions of work for the Haitian workers are miserable - the orange pickers and peelers are paid on the basis of how many cases they fill or empty per day, and they must work nonstop all day long to make just a few dollars. The plantations and workplaces lack even the most basic toilet and washing facilities, creating special problems for the orange peelers who suffer hand and facial irritation from the citric acid juice. Constant exposure to the acidic spray also causes respiratory and digestive problems. Traditionally, the plantation management has ignored Haiti's labor laws, and workers are unable to claim sick leave or take annual holidays.

Now, newly formed unions of the orange peel workers are fighting back by alerting the public in North America and Europe, the main markets for the liqueurs.

"Spiked with oranges from the French West Indies," runs the advertising slogan on a Grand Marnier poster showing a laughing woman reclining on a chaise lounge, clutching a bottle of the cognac-based liqueur. In fact, although Haiti was indeed once a French colony, over 200 years ago the black African slaves there rose up and overthrew their colonial masters.

While neighboring Guadeloupe and Martinique may still be part of France, Haiti has been independent since 1804. But one yoke was soon replaced by another, as Haiti became a testing ground for neo-colonialism. With the support of their governments, merchants from Britain, Germany, the United States and France took control of the export of Haiti's main agricultural produce - coffee, sugar, cacao and logwood. The small citrus fruit trade was also gobbled up, and a Frenchman, Louis Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, identifying the potential of Haiti's bitter oranges for use in the production of his family's cognac, purchased plantation land in 1880.

Over a hundred years later, the Paris-based Marnier-Lapostolle company still owns a 72-hectare plantation, not far from the second city of Cap-Haitien. The plantation, established 30 years ago by Maxime Coury (now the director of Marnier-Lapostolle), is managed by a Haitian company, Etablissements Novella, on behalf of the French owners. Etablissements Novella is an established import-export company with extensive interests in the coffee trade in northern Haiti. It is owned by Jacques Novella, who was once the French consul in Haiti, but the day-to-day running of the company is carried out by his two nephews. These brothers, Daniel and Nonce Zephir, also manage a separate concern, Produits Agricoles Guacimal S.A., in which the French multinational, Rémy Cointreau, owns a minority share. Guacimal operates an orange tree plantation near the northern town of St. Raphael, and a processing plant in the village of Madeline, from which it supplies orange peel for use in the production of the Cointreau liqueur.

The Cap-Haitien-based Hans Broder Schutt company, owned by a Haitian family of German descent, runs one of the companies that ship the peel.

A company executive explained why Haitian oranges, as opposed to fruit from North Africa or the Middle East, are still in demand in Europe, "Firstly, the liqueur manufacturers insist on organic oranges because they use the peels to make the drinks ­­ Haiti is one of the only places in the world where agricultural pesticides are not much used. Secondly, peeling oranges is a labor-intensive task, and there is nowhere that grows oranges with labor as cheap as it is in Haiti."

PITTED AGAINST A NEW UNION
It was only in 1999, when some of the 350 workers at the Marnier-Lapostolle plantation formed a union, that the low pay, poor conditions and denial of basic rights endured by Haiti's orange workers were made known to a wider public. On the advice of Batay Ouvriye (Workers' Struggle), the Haitian popular organization that a few years earlier had played a leading role in the unionization of workers in garment assembly factories in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, the new union made contact with solidarity organizations in France and Britain. [See Multinational Monitor October 1997, "Working for Justice In Haiti: An interview with Yannick Etienne."]

When negotiations with the Zephir brothers broke down over the issue of wage increases in November 1999, the French organization, Reseau-Solidarité, and the British Haiti Support Group responded to the union's request for help, and launched a worldwide publicity campaign.

Thousands of letters and e-mails were sent to Marnier-Lapostolle asking the company to authorize the Haitian managers to grant wage increases to workers who earned as little as $2 a day.

As the dispute continued, the plantation management fired union leaders and tried to intimidate workers. Solidarity organizations responded by escalating their campaign. Relying heavily on e-mail networks, groups such as the U.S. International Labor Rights Fund and the Campaign for Labor Rights mobilized hundreds of individuals and organizations to lobby the Marnier-Lapostolle offices in Paris and New York.

The deluge of e-mails arriving at the Marnier-Lapostolle address was so great that at one point the company threatened the Haiti Support Group with legal action, claiming it was a victim of spamming.

Despite this pressure, however, by the spring of 2000 when the orange season in Haiti ended and, as usual, the workers were laid off for a Œdead season' of undetermined length, the Zephir brother on behalf of Marinier-Lapostolle had offered the union only a derisory wage increase and vague promises of improved conditions.

Then in July 2000, Yannick Etienne, a Batay Ouvriye organizer closely involved with the orange workers' union, visited the United Kingdom as a guest of the British labor movement's campaigning organization, War on Want.

"Etienne met senior trade union figures throughout the UK, received coverage in a number of national daily newspapers and was also covered in the trade union press," explains Nick Dearden, War on Want's trade union officer.

After Etienne addressed a major British labor movement rally to commemorate the British trade unionists deported to a penal colony in Australia in 1834, hundreds of additional protest letters were sent.

The renewed pressure paid off. Within days, Daniel Zephir was summoned to Marnier-Lapostolle headquarters in Paris, and told to reopen negotiations on wages.

Back in Haiti, on July 25, union and management concluded a settlement granting plantation day laborers a 43 gourde wage increase, taking their daily wage up to 95 gourdes ($4 at current exchange rates). The contract grants two-person teams of orange pickers an increase from 4.1 gourdes to 7.25 gourdes per case filled (each full case contains approximately 150 oranges), and orange cutters a rate of 25 gourdes per case, meaning that a two-worker cutting team, who on average complete five cases a day, would earn 125 gourdes, or 62.5 gourdes ($2.55) each. The following prices in Haiti put the rates of pay into some perspective: a stick of bread costs 5 gourdes; a short ride on public transport, 2.5 gourdes; a basic rice and beans meal, a minimum of 15 gourdes; and a soft drink, 6 gourdes.

Although the plantation workers welcomed the increases, the union pointed out that they barely meet the original demands made almost a year ago, even as the annual inflation rate has reached 15 percent.

"While acknowledging the growing solidarity movement in support of their struggle to win basic demands from the management, workers will continue to count on militant solidarity for the ongoing campaign," Batay Ouvriye declared after the settlement. Noting the difficulty in forcing such limited gains, Batay Ouvriye's Yannick Etienne could only marvel as Marnier-Lapostolle announced earnings for 1999-2000 of $12 million. (Revenue for 1999-2000 was $93 million.)

THE MOVEMENT SPREADS
In October, workers at the nearby Guacimal plants, inspired by the Marnier campaign, announced the formation of their own union. Many of the 330 Guacimal workers earn less than the daily minimum wage in Haiti ($1.50 since 1995), and all endure primitive working conditions.

The union has called for international pressure on Rémy Cointreau. The French giant, which has a portfolio of prestigious brands such as Rémy Martin cognac, Mount Gay rum and Piper Heidsieck champagne, recently expanded with the $460 million acquisition of the Dutch firm, Bols. In the financial year 1999-2000, it recorded a net operating profit of $61 million, a 163 percent increase compared with the previous year. Fortune magazine recently ranked Company Chair Dominique Heriard Dubreuil fifth in its list of the world's 50 most powerful women in business.

The Guacimal management has reacted to the union's demands for negotiations with stalling tactics, threats and intimidation, and is attempting to break the union by hiring replacement workers.

This strong response has been complemented by a public relations campaign by Rémy Cointreau. Joelle Jézéquel, a company spokesperson, claims that a company representative has visited Haiti and concluded an agreement with the union.

The union denies any agreement exists. "Your company's representative, Mr. Morineau, did not even bother to greet us, and even less to meet with us or to ask us about our grievances," Elimene Micheline Toussaint, secretary of the Union of Workers at Guacimal, wrote in a reply to Jézéquel. "We wish to state clearly and unequivocally that there was no communication of any kind between the union, the workers and Mr. Morineau."

She continued, "The union would like nothing better than to meet in Haiti with Cointreau representatives at the earliest possible date."

The Guacimal workers, and their allies around the world, are waiting for Rémy Cointreau's answer.


Charles Arthur is the author of Haiti in Focus: People, Politics and Culture.